Written by Caitlin Masoliver
The year 2020 marked the first year of the so-called “decade of acceleration”, the last 10 years in the pathway towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Formulated at the start of 2016, the SDGs encompass a set of seventeen Goals, each of which has its own set of indicators and targets related to advancing peace and prosperity for all, while protecting the environment. Together, they form the 2030 Agenda, with 2030 set as the deadline for meeting the targeted progress (UNDP, 2018).
While marking the beginning of the “decade of acceleration”, what 2020 also brought into sharper focus is the reality that we still have a long way to go before achieving the aspirations of the SDGs. The COVID-19 pandemic has created new and exacerbated pre-existing challenges and inequalities, such as rises in gender-based violence, heightened mistrust between governments and their citizens, and increased economic vulnerabilities as just a few of the impacts experienced beyond the public health implications.
As the international community begins to look towards a ‘post-pandemic’ world, “building back better” has become a buzzword in discussions around post-covid recovery. What is needed to ensure the recent backsliding in progress towards the 2030 Agenda during COVID-19 is reversed? What is hindering advancements towards the achievement of the SDG targets, and can we catalyse this progress somehow? These are the questions policymakers and practitioners working on the 2030 agenda are asking, and there is increasing evidence pointing towards gender equality – encompassed under SDG5 – as one of the fundamental prerequisites and catalytic answers.
SDG5: “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”
Sustainable Development Goal 5 is focused specifically on gender equality, and contains a number of targets to measure its implementation, such as ending all forms of discrimination on the basis of gender, ending violence and exploitation of women and girls, ensuring full participation of all genders in decision-making and leadership processes, and ensuring access to universal reproductive rights and reproductive health (United Nations, 2020).
While monitoring progress on the achievement of the SDGs is assessed according to Goal-specific indicators, it is widely recognised that achievement of the 2030 Agenda in its entirety cannot be achieved through a siloed approach; many of the targets under one Goal are contingent on the realisation of targets under another, and many of the targets are relevant to and fall under the umbrella of more than one Goal (UN Stats, 2018). SDG5 and its targets related to gender equality is one such Goal.
The inextricable tie between gender equality and sustainable development
The SDGs were developed in response to some of the most critical challenges facing society today. From climate change, to access to clean water and sanitation, to industry, innovation, and infrastructure, the framework is multidisciplinary and broad. Despite their separation into distinct Goals, they are widely recognised as interconnected; the success of one often depends on meeting the targets under another (UN Stats, 2018). SDG5 is a clear example of this; not only do many of the 2030 Agenda’s targets have a gendered dimension within them, but there is increasing evidence to show that advancing gender equality is a necessary prerequisite to achieving truly sustainable social, economic, and political progress. In other words, failing to address and transform the barriers to achieving gender equality, or pursuing the SDG targets in a gender-neutral way, will hinder advancements on all the other SDGs.
Take progress on mitigating the global climate crisis, for instance – as encompassed under SDG13. There is a wide body of existing research examining the distinct and disproportionate impacts of climate change on women, analysing the ways in which they are particularly vulnerable, and framing them as a marginalised group (Heimpel, 2021; Dunne, 2020). Only focusing on this dimension of the gender-climate nexus, however, ignores the fact that women can and do play highly important roles in understanding and adapting to climate change and its impacts, and that ensuring they can fulfill this potential is crucial to making progress towards prevention of and adaptation to climate change. They possess highly valuable local knowledge, skills, and experiences that are crucial in efforts to strengthen community resilience to natural and man-made disasters (Carvajal-Escobar, Quintero-Angel, & García-Vargas, 2008). Research shows that women are making and have the potential to make highly valuable contributions to the implementation of climate adaptation and mitigation measures, such as planting drought-resistant crops or putting in place early warning systems. Further than their implementation, women are also vital to ensuring that these measures are maintained in a sustainable way (Dugarova, 2017); their roles and responsibilities in their communities places them with unique expertise on their local environment, food management systems, and natural resources for improved climate adaptation and sustainable development. This is just one example of how advancing gender equality in the decision-making and capacities on climate change adaptation has the potential to contribute to the overall targets related to protecting, restoring, and promoting sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably managing forests, combating desertification, and halting and reversing land degradation and biodiversity loss.
Another example of the inextricable relationship between gender equality and progress on the 2030 Agenda is in relation to peace, justice, and strong institutions, or SDG16. A fundamental pillar of SDG16 relates to ensuring inclusive, representative, and non-discriminatory decision-making processes and policies (SDG Tracker, 2018). By definition, non-discriminatory and inclusive decision-making should invite all members of society to the table to share in the decision-making responsibilities and to provide inputs on what their distinct needs are, including representation across the wide spectrum of gender identity. There is evidence to suggest that greater gender parity and representation in political participation is an accelerator towards shaping more inclusive, democratic, and egalitarian policymaking. For instance, research conducted by Tamaru and O’Reilly (2018) in Tunisia found that women provided a valuable link to close the gap between the formal, governmental levels and informal, civil society levels; while gender parity in formal governmental policy-making bodies and parliaments was lacking, women played a pivotal advisory role as experts, academics, and practitioner representatives of their constituencies, and used this expertise to bring forward the needs of a much broader demographic of society. This ensured that the needs and voices of their community members were brought to the table, and they were able to successfully advocate for their inclusion in policymaking and to shape policies that better reflected the needs of their constituencies (Tamaru & O’Reilly, 2018). Advancing gender equality in decision making, therefore, is integral to shaping policymaking processes and outputs that are more representative and reflective of the needs of the various intersections of society, central to meeting SDG16’s target of inclusive, representative, and non-discriminatory decision-making processes and policies.
Progress towards the 2030 Agenda: Building forward better with gender equality
These are just two examples of the interconnectedness between gender equality and the other aspects of the 2030 Agenda. As captured by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015, “the achievement of full human potential and of sustainable development is not possible if one half of humanity continues to be denied its full human rights and opportunities.” It is essential, therefore, that as the international community makes steps towards realising the targets it set itself five years ago, it does so through a lens that recognises the inextricable relationship between gender equality and progress on sustainable development, and that efforts are made to ensure that a gender transformative approach is adopted at all levels.
Carvajal-Escobar, Y., Quintero-Angel, M., & García-Vargas, M. (2008). Women’s role in adapting to climate change and variability. European Geosciences Union, 14, 277-280.
Dugarova, E (2017). Gender Equality as an Accelerator for Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. UN Women.
Dunne, D. (2020). Mapped: How climate change disproportionately affects women’s health. Carbon Brief. Retrieved from https://www.carbonbrief.org/mapped-how-climate-change-disproportionately-affects-womens-health
Heimpel, E. (2021). The disproportionate impact of climate change on women and girls. Ecologi. Retrieved from https://ecologi.com/articles/blog/the-disproportionate-impact-of-climate-change-on-women-and-girls
SDG Tracker. (2018). Sustainable Development Goal 16: Promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies. https://sdg-tracker.org/peace-justice.
Tamaru, N. and M. O’Reilly. (2018). How Women Influence Constitution Making After Conflict and Unrest. Inclusive Security. https://www.inclusivesecurity.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/How-Women-Influence-Constitution-Making.pdf.
United Nations. (2020). Gender Equality: Why It Matters. https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/5_Why-It-Matters-2020.pdf.
UNDP. (2018). 5 things you need to know about the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
United Nations General Assembly. (2015). 70/1: Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for
Sustainable Development. https://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/migration/generalassembly/docs/globalcompact/A_RES_70_1_E.pdf.UN Stats. (2018). Interlinked nature of the Sustainable Development Goals. https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/report/2018/interlinkages/.